3 ways sharing struggles creates major success

Image can seem like it’s everything when it comes to creating a successful business. Leaders are often afraid to share their struggles, both personal and professional, paralyzed with fear that those struggles might be looked at as weakness.  

I’ve had my share of significant challenges, but they no longer carry shame for me. Whether it was filing for personal bankruptcy to get my business off the ground or learning I hadn’t fully inhaled in five years, the importance of sharing—and embracing—the struggles that come along with success can’t be overstated.  

Here’s what can happen when you wear your struggles with pride instead of hiding them in shame. 

  1. Sharing struggles starts with reflection, which leads to healing and empowerment 

The first year of getting my business off the ground was one big lesson in struggle.  

In fact, when I started treetree with my co-founder, I had to file for personal bankruptcy to clear the path for the agency.  

In our first year, I lived on roughly $17,000 and realized that if I wanted to succeed in the long term, I had to do something scary. Terrifying. So, I consulted with smart people I trusted, and then took action. I filed for personal bankruptcy. 

I was ashamed for so long to share this, but then I realized that my own struggle shaped my success and formed who I am as a leader. Perhaps even more importantly, being vulnerable with my story could help bolster someone else who is struggling to stand up a business. 

And research backs this up. 

When researchers from the Harvard Business Review interviewed more than 40 top leaders in business and the public sector, they put it this way: “We were surprised to find that all of them — young and old — were able to point to intense, often traumatic, always unplanned experiences that had transformed them and had become the sources of their distinctive leadership abilities,” they write. “It required them to examine their values, question their assumptions, hone their judgment. And, invariably, they emerged from the crucible stronger and more sure of themselves and their purpose — changed in some fundamental way.”  

It was painful and traumatic but the later process (I’m talking a decade later) of sharing my experience, reflecting and learning to see how it shaped my path for success has been incredibly healing and empowering.  

  1. Others learn from your failures, not your victories 

What if your favorite narrative had only victories?  

Imagine The Wizard of Oz with no struggle: Dorothy finds herself in a tornado, lands in Oz, meets some friends who sing and dance along a yellow brick road, and finds a wizard who sends her back home to Kansas. The end.  

Where’s the story in that? Where’s the lesson of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey? 

Our own stories function much the same way. As enticing as perfection may seem, there’s not much relatable or teachable about the story of a CEO who had an idea for a business, everyone bought their widget and now they are a gazillionaire. The end. 

For example, I am on a lifelong mindfulness journey. Was I born with this practice? 

Nope. I had to have two different coaches tell me how to feel my butt in my chair and actually breathe in and out before I could fathom enjoying the present moment. I physically became ill before I stopped running at breakneck speed. 

My life’s influence, Brené Brown, tells us that, “Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame.”  

I love interacting with, mentoring and learning from other female leaders—and that would be impossible to do if I insisted on looking perfect because there is no lesson where there is no struggle. 

  1. Being vulnerable gives your team permission to innovate 

Finally, sharing struggles take loads of vulnerability. 

Brené Brown also says, “So many leaders fail to realize that without vulnerability there is no creativity or innovation. Why? Because there is nothing more uncertain than the creative process, and there is absolutely no innovation without failure. Show me a culture in which vulnerability is framed as weakness and I’ll show you a culture struggling to come up with fresh ideas and new perspectives.” 

In 2020, I had the chance to ask a CMO over virtual coffee if there were any marketing tactics or tools she had been wanting to try prior to COVID-19 that she hadn’t been able to accomplish—either from lack of dollars, time or the team’s support.  

Her response?  

It wasn’t tactics her team lacked. It was the organization’s willingness to try and adopt new technologies and new ways to work.  

We at treetree, on the other hand, spent much of 2019 ditching the last of some old systems. I mean, we still routed work for proofreading on actual paper, for goodness’s sake. I am so thankful that in the months before COVID-19, we adopted many technologies that made working remotely every day seamless. 

We didn’t know it in January, but we converted the final set of processes just in time. 

And that wasn’t an accident.  

That came from my team feeling curious and confident enough to offer up new ways of doing things. One hundred percent of the tactics we implemented came from the team inside treetree, not its leader.  

But if I led only from a place of authority rather than vulnerability, my team wouldn’t have the freedom to brainstorm and debate, to graciously push and pull. And if my leadership style were closed off, I would most certainly be facing some very different struggles today. 

How and when to share your story 

Recounting challenges you’ve faced doesn’t mean you have to be an open book or feign authenticity; you choose when is appropriate to get real.  

First, take time to reflect on your story. What has shaped you as a leader? How would your success look different without those crucible life moments? 

Then, ask yourself where the lesson is. Who can learn from your failure, and why? How would you carve out a beginning, middle and end in a way that shows your transformation?  

Your story is personal and unique. But when you wear your struggles with pride instead of hiding them in shame, you not only empower yourself but you also encourage others. 

Becca Apfelstadt

After starting her career in advertising as an intern at just 17 years old, Becca Apfelstadt co-founded Columbus-based marketing agency treetree to live out her passion for agency life. Day in and day out, she and her team prove that a smart approach to positioning and culture make a big impact on the work created and the client teams the agency supports. Since 2009, treetree has been fueled by growth, being recognized multiple times on the Inc. 5000 list nationally and Columbus Business First's Fast 50. Of special importance to Becca, treetree has been honored for culture as one of Columbus Business First’s Best Places to Work and nationally as a Best Workplaces recipient by Inc. Magazine. She was awarded Forty under 40 in Columbus Business First in 2015 and has been featured in Fortune, GrowWire, and I Want Her Job, as well as on the podcasts Conquering Columbus and Business First's Women of Influence. Becca speaks on topics related to women in leadership, creative workplace policies, time management and treetree's culture and workplace design. In 2020 she launched an initiative called Get Your Mind Bright to help rising leaders grow in their home, work and hearts. The newsletter is full of inspired content to help you shine brighter.

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